Glass, plastic, and stone are probably the most common materials, but beads are also made from bone, horn, ivory, metal, shell, pearl, coral, gemstones, polymer clay, metal clay, resin, synthetic minerals, wood, ceramic, fiber, paper, and seeds.
Types of decorative beads include:
Chevron Beads are special glass beads, originally made for trade in the New World and the slave trade in Africa by glassmakers in Italy as far back as the early 15th century. They are composed of many consecutive layers of colored glass. The initial core is formed in a star-shaped mold, and can have anywhere between five and fifteen points. The next layer of glass conforms to that star shape. Several layers of glass can be applied (typically four to seven layers), either star-shaped or smooth. After all layers have been applied, the glass is drawn out to the desired thickness and when cooled, cut into short segments showing the resulting star pattern at their ends. The ends can be ground to display the chevron pattern. Chevron beads are traditionally composed of red, blue, and white layers, but modern chevrons can be found in any color combination. Original beads made for trade to the New World and Africa were typically composed of green, white, blue and red layers.
Other beads considered trade beads are those made in West Africa, by and for Africans, such as Mauritanian Kiffa beads, and Ghanaian and Nigerian powder glass beads . Other ethnic beads include Tibetan Dzi beads and African-made brass beads. Rudraksha beads are seeds that are customary in India for making Buddhist and Hindu rosaries (malas). Magatama are traditional Japanese beads, and cinnabar was often used for beads in China.
Tagua nuts from South American are used as an ivory substitute since the natural ivory trade has been restricted worldwide.
Furnace glass beads are a special type of art bead. They are made using traditional glassworking techniques from Italy that are more often used to make art glass objects. The manufacture of these beads requires a large glass furnace and annealing kiln.
Furnace glass beads, also called cane glass beads, are sliced from long glass rods, often decorated with stripes and other color, also known as canes.
Lead crystal beads (also known as machine cut crystal) are cut crystal beads made with hi-tech precise machinery. Thanks to this state of the art machine cut processing the crystal items achieve outstanding geometry and excellent optical parameters. Many lead crystal beads are enhanced with surface coatings. Aurora Borealis, or AB, is a very common surface coating that diffuses light into a rainbow. Other common surface coatings are vitrail, moonlight, dorado, satin, star shine, heliotrope.
Swarovski along with Preciosa branded crystal beads are prized by jewelers and hobbyists. They are a high-lead content crystal although today production of lead-free crystal is common. Lead crystals have an incredible sparkle and clarity, and are often multi-faceted to resemble gemstones. Styles and colors go in and out of production, so vintage cuts and colors are often prized with a similarly associated price tag. Swarovski along with Preciosa bicones are the most popular crystal beads in sizes and . Other Czech companies such as PAS Jablonec make similar styles of crystal beads.
The millefiori technique involves the production of glass canes or rods, known as murrine, with multicolored patterns which are viewable only from the cut ends of the cane. Millefiori beads are made of plain wound glass bead cores and thin slices of cut cane (murrine) which are being pressed into the bead surface, forming mosaic-like patterns, while the glass is still hot. Another name for Millefiori bead is mosaic bead.
Pressed glass beads are formed by pressing the hot glass into mold to give the bead its shape. Often pressed beads are made using machines that stamp the shape from the molten glass. The shapes can have holes punched in virtually any direction. The Czech Republic is the primary producer of pressed beads, although India and China also produce significant amounts.
Seed beads are uniformly shaped spheroidal or tube shaped beads ranging in size from under a millimetre to several millimetres. "Seed Bead" is a generic term for any small bead. Usually rounded in shape, seed beads are most commonly used for loom and off-loom bead weaving.
The ivory-nut palm, Phytelephas aequatorialis, is a plant that can be harvested for vegetable ivory. It is often used for beads, buttons, and jewelry, and can be dyed. The beads can take a form of the whole Tagua nut or various slices, beads and shapes carved and cut from raw Tagua nuts. In its natural form Tagua resembles Ivory and hence the name vegetable ivory is sometimes used to describe it. However unlike Elephant ivory Tagua is completely eco-friendly.
Trade beads are various types of beads made in Europe specifically to be used in the slave trade and other trading in Africa. Chevron beads are a specific, historically important type of trade bead. Africa was not the only outlet for these beads. As far back as Christopher Columbus' expeditions, these beads were traded to Native Americans for goods and slaves.
Also known as Perler Beads, sometimes called "melty beads" by young children, these small, plastic and colorful beads are placed on a peg array with a solid plastic backing to form pictures and designs and then melted together with a clothes iron. Fusible beads come in many different opaque colors, transparent colors and with sparkles (flakes inside the plastic) and peg boards come in various shapes (e.g. figures) and squares and rectangles. They also can be strung into necklaces or bracelets, or even woven into keychains.
Beck, Horace (1928) "Classification and Nomenclature of Beads and Pendants." Archaeologia 77. (Reprinted by Shumway Publishers York, PA 1981)